Not for Me

Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue: Skip it.

I wasn't all that bothered by all of the media pieces accusing Wednesday Martin of playing fast and loose with her facts in her bestselling memoir Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. I was more bothered by the fact that it just wasn't that interesting.

Perhaps it's just a subject-matter problem. How interesting can you make stories of parenting and living among extreme wealth on Manhattan's Upper East Side? Doesn't anyone with a TV or any basic cultural knowledge about New York City (or even just extremely wealthy people) know that Alpha Moms and Dads with a lot of money compete viciously among themselves for places for their children in the right preschools and schools, not to mention living in the "right" door-manned buildings and carrying the right Birkin bags? Martin tries to give an anthropological spin to this memoir--throwing in Anthropology Lite tidbits here and there to explain dominance behavior like other women aggressively "charging" her on the sidewalk, or the dangers of "going native"--but nothing is noted, footnoted, or really explored in any real in-depth way to make that tactic any more than a gimmick to sell this book.

The book did periodically give me a chuckle (but not really for the right reasons); I enjoyed this quote, when Martin is talking about trying to sell their townhouse downtown: "I was forever making it look pristine and then rushing out the door so a broker and client could "view" it." (p. 25.)

Now I don't know if we should blame Martin or her editor for that one, but all I could think was, come on, Wednesday. We sell houses in the Midwest too; you don't really have to put "view" in quotes for us.

In one of the final chapters, Martin actually does do some poignant writing about losing a baby while in her second (nearing her third) trimester, and nobody who has ever had a baby or lost a baby will be unaffected by it. But even then she reminds you that the problems of the rich are entirely different from those of the not rich:

"She [the expected third child that they lost] was a burden, in a way, this baby, taxing our space and stealing the older one's crib and requiring private school and college tuition and a renovation and four or five more years of a full-time nanny." (p. 207.)

I'm sorry for her loss, but those aren't really worries [oh, those full-time nannies, they really do cost!] to which I can relate. Skip this one.

Brian Grazer's A Curious Mind: Disappointing.

I so badly wanted to like Brian Grazer's book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

I don't actually know anything about Brian Grazer (beyond the facts that he is a Hollywood movie producer with big hair who runs Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard), but this book got a lot of good press and it's based on a rather engaging idea. Grazer has spent much of his adult life engaged in what he calls "curiosity conversations," whereby he just tries to get some time with interesting and/or famous people, and have a chat. About nothing really in particular.

And I loved the first chapter, when Grazer is explaining his idea, and how he got started in work and with this curiosity habit. Very engaging stuff:

"One Thursday afternoon, the summer after I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), I was sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica with the windows open, thinking about how to get some work until I started law school at USC in the fall.

Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, 'Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour.'

This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn't miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.

The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. 'I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht.'

I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.

I went right to the telephone, dialed 411, and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.--I still remember it, 954-6000.

I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, 'I'm going to USC law school in the fall, and I'd like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that's open." (p. 2.)

Now that's hilarious. That story is proof that the meek will not inherit the earth, at least not while we're on the earth. I enjoyed the story even more as Grazer talks about how he parlayed it into meeting famous people; the largest part of the job was basically ferrying legal paperwork around, so when he had to deliver papers to people he wanted to meet, like Warren Beatty, he just told their assistants that he had to hand the legal papers to them personally. I just laughed and laughed at the sheer clever ballsiness of this guy. So I was more than ready to continue on the curiosity journey with him.

How disappointing, then, that the rest of the book, ostensibly focusing on the conversations Grazer has had with people over the years*, read more like a business book treatise (and not a particularly compellingly written treatise at that) on the merits of having curiosity. I skimmed through most of the book, but mainly I ended up feeling like the victim of a massive bait-and-switch: Grazer would tease with the name/s of people he spoke with, but he never really shared any concrete details of their conversations. Instead he veers off into a lot of this sort of thing:

"Unlike creativity and innovation, though, curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic, easier to see, and also easier to do." (p. 61.)

Blah blah blah, whatever. Yeah, curiosity is great. I get it. It's not a complicated concept. Now would you just tell me what you and Rufus Wainwright TALKED ABOUT??**

*And he's talked to a LOT of interesting people; he lists his conversational partners at the end of the book, and they include (but are not limited to): Muhammad Ali, Isaac Asimov, Tyra Banks, Jeff Bezos, Vincent Bugliosi, Jim Cramer, Mario Cuomo, David Hockney, Chris Isaak, Wolfgang Puck...

**When I saw Rufus Wainwright on his list of people, I got super excited (because I read the list before reading the book), thinking I would get to hear about his conversation with Wainwright. (Oh, Rufus.) Alas, I found that the book contains only the briefest of anecdotes about his discussions with just a very select few of his interviewees.

I don't want a guy writing my romantic fiction.

The Rosie Project
by Graeme Simsion

A few weeks ago a friend recommended I read the romance The Rosie Project, written by Australian Graeme Simsion. This friend and I actually met when she came into my library and I suggested a Melissa Senate book to her (I think she was asking for chick lit-ish suggestions, if I remember correctly), which she liked, so you can see a big part of our relationship is talking over books.*

So when she suggested The Rosie Project, I went right to the library to get it.

And it was okay. It's set in Australia (a nice change of pace, that), and the main character is Don Tillman, an academic and genetic researcher who is described on the book jacket as "brilliant yet socially challenged," and who may or may not have some Asperger-like tendencies. A case in point? His logical approach to finding a mate: the Wife Project, wherein he asks women to complete a detailed survey to assess their qualifications for the role of his potential life partner. Which is an okay plan, until he meets Rosie, who doesn't really fit any of his Wife Project criteria, but who does bring an interesting genetic quandary to their relationship: she wants to find out who her biological father is (and she's got a small sampling of candidates to test).

So yeah, it was okay, and I finished it, and even enjoyed it in bits--Don's not an unlikable main character and Rosie has her charms--but I wouldn't say it was a great book.** There were never really any moments where I went, "Awww...," and when reading romance or chick lit, I kind of need that "Awww..." moment. And then it struck me that at least part of the problem here was that I don't really care for the protagonists of my chick lit to be male. And I really don't want my romance books to be written by guys either.*** Go ahead and accuse me of reverse discrimination. But I'm trying to think of any love story written by a guy that I've really liked...and right now nothing is coming to me. I certainly didn't enjoy Shotgun Lovesongs, that's for sure.

*Which is just so awesome. It might be close-minded, but I'm at the age now where I'm pretty much looking to only associate with people who read, and who talk about reading.

**In a hilarious turn of events, Mr. CR, who rarely reads books I bring home and never reads romance (the last "romance" I suggested to him that he read was W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage), read it, liked it, and seemed disappointed that I wasn't more enthusiastic about it.

***Unless that guy is Norman Maclean, whose novella A River Runs Through It is one of my favorite love stories of all time. But more general love, not dating-relationships-marriage love.

Very British Problems...

as a Twitter account* posting such items as the below was more than enough. I really don't know that it needed to be made into a book.

"'Right, well, anyway, good, I suppose I should really probably soon start to think about maybe making a move" - Translation: Bye" [Note: Evidently, this sort of thing is considered a "very British problem."]

And there you have it. My brevity may not be the soul of much wit, but it is all I have the energy for tonight. Have a great weekend, all.

*p.s. I still don't understand Twitter, and honestly, I think I'm happier that way.

Some new "meh" fiction for your consideration.

Last week was not a real winner for me and fiction.

First off, I read David Duchovny's new novel Holy Cow, and all I can say is, wow, David Duchovny needs some more people around him to tell him when something's a bad idea. It's not the worst novel I've ever read, but I pretty much made it through only because it's a fast read and 206 pages long. It's narrated by a cow who dreams of going to India, where cows are sacred, because she learns by sneaking out of her enclosure and watching TV through her humans' windows that Americans raise and butcher cows in horrible surroundings. This shocks her, and she starts making her plans for exodus. Along the way she picks up a pig who wants to go to Israel (where they don't eat pork, of course), and a turkey who wants to go to Turkey (just because). I'd say, hilarity ensues, but it doesn't, really. Here's your sample bit:

"My ancestors, my great-great-great-great-great-etc.-grandmother came from somewhere in what humans call the Middle East. That's where the Maker made us and first put our hooves on the ground. They called it the land of milk and honey. And guess who provided the milk? Though I'm told that goats also get milked by humans. Are you kidding me? Come on. No offense, but goat's milk does not compare with cow's milk, unless you're a goat kid. Have you ever seen a cow trying to drink milk from a goat? Case closed.

And now I hear stories of humans milking something called an 'almond' and another called a 'soy.' I've never seen a wild almond or a say galloping about in its natural habitat, but cow milk is the best. I'd bet three of my four stomachs on it." (pp. 11-12.)

And there you go. All I know is all week when I was reading other novels and Mr. CR wanted to know how they were, he would phrase the question this way: "Is it better or worse than the Duchovny cow book you've got in the bathroom? Because that thing is terrible."

Your other "meh" choice (although better, I think than the Duchovny cow book in the bathroom) is Ellen Meister's Dorothy Parker Drank Here. Here's the premise: Dorothy Parker, witty member of the Algonquin (Hotel) round table of the 1920s, along with many other authors and luminaries, signed a guest book owned by the hotel's manager. Turns out it was a magic book and if the person so chooses, after death they can "go to the light" or sit around the Algonquin. Dorothy chooses the latter, but is lonely, so she tries to get another author staying in the same hotel to agree to sign the book, so when he passes, she'll have company. Enter a gung-ho TV producer who wants to get that author booked on her talk show, and who learns Dorothy Parker is still hanging out at the Algonquin. I'd say, hilarity ensues, but, well, it doesn't. It's an okay book and actually Dorothy Parker's lines are believably witty, but all the rest of the characters (and most of the story) is serious dullsville.

Back to nonfiction for a while.

I do not understand the appeal of David Shields at all.

Over the last few years a nonfiction author's name I have seen a lot is "David Shields." When I come across his name or his titles, which often appear on many end-of-year "Best" lists, they always sound vaguely interesting. Like his book The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead. Intriguing, right? Also: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Even more intriguing, sometimes, is the jacket copy on these books. Here's how Reality Hunger is described:

"With this landmark book, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields orchestrates a chorus of voices, past and present, to reframe debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience."

If you overlook that "landmark book" stuff, what you have there is a book that it seems like I would be interested in reading. So I checked it out, and then I tried for weeks to get past the first few pages. I couldn't do it. Same problem with another of his titles, How Literature Saved My Life. (Yet another title you'd think I would eat up with a spoon.) But I persist in trying to understand this author's appeal, or even, just being able to finish one of his books.

Well, the good news is that I did make it all the way through his new book, I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The bad news is, I still don't understand why this guy is a bestselling nonfiction author. Perhaps the quickest way to show you how I felt about this book would be to suggest some alternate titles for it that occurred to me while I was reading it:

"Two D-Bags Have the World's Most Boring Conversation"*

"Two Guys Find Yet Another Way to Avoid Housework and Family Obligations While They Take a Four-Day Vacation Together"

"We'll Bill This As an Art Vs. Life Conversation, But Really What We Have Here Is Four Days' Worth of Not Very Interesting Male Digressions"

"People Will Obviously Buy Anything with David Shields's Name On It, So Here You Go"

So what is it about? Literally, author David Shields and his former writing student Caleb Powell, one a bestselling author in his fifties, and the other a house-husband and father of three in his forties, take four days to hang out in a friend's cabin together and discuss "everything they can think of in the name of exploring and debating their central question (life and/or art?)." I really did read the whole thing, because at some point I expected them to actually get at something remotely resembling a debate about "life and/or art," but honestly, they never did. They discussed:

Their teacher/student dynamic; their wives and whether or not said wives read and like their work; the "x-factor" each of them need to enjoy stories or TV programs; sports; Powell's interest in violence and true crime and the nature of suffering; at one point they actually include a several-page transcript of the movie "My Dinner with Andre"; Caleb's experience with a transvestite in Samoa and his desire to explore that experience in fiction; a wide variety of authors (although they manage to take all the fun out of that, even, with David saying things like "It's crucial to me that these books rotate outward toward a metaphor"); how many kids they each have; capitalism; their mothers; Caleb's drinking; and then back to their teacher/student dynamic. So, okay, the conversation is wide-ranging. But nowhere does it actually take on the flesh-and-blood feel to me of a real conversation. It certainly didn't answer (or really even raise, in my opinion) the question of "art vs. life."**

A long time ago I went to a church service with my mother-in-law when their regular pastor was on vacation, and they had this little eighteen-year-old boy who was a counselor at the religious summer camp down the road in to give the homily. I don't remember what he talked about, but I do remember it was borderline annoying and I mainly wanted to pat the clueless little dear on the head, and tell him to get down from the podium so my mother-in-law, a woman then in her late fifties, could get up there and tell us a few things about how life actually is. This book gave me that exact same feeling. I think all of us should get four-day vacations wherein we just chew the fat with someone and then publish the results. I'm pretty sure 90% of those efforts would be accidentally more interesting than this one.***

And please note: this book has been adapted into a film by James Franco. God help us.

*I am aware that this is not very nice. I apologize. I can be nice, or I can be honest about how this book made me feel, but I can't be both.

**Other reviewers would disagree with me.

***Except not this book. Evidently two guys talking and annoying the crap out of me is a new mini-genre of nonfiction.

You may not love the biography, but at least you learn something.

Thomas Hardy
by Claire Tomalin

Recently I spent about a month methodically plowing through Claire Tomalin's biography Thomas Hardy.

Hardy was on my mind because a new adaptation of his novel Far from the Madding Crowd is coming out this week. I've not read all of his novels, but I very much enjoyed Under the Greenwood Tree (which I only read after watching the BBC adaptation, thanks again, British TV) and a short story collection titled A Changed Man. I've read parts of Tess of the D'urbervilles and would very much like to finish the whole thing, and although I've read The Return of the Native, I don't remember it very well.*

So when I went looking for a biography of Hardy I thought I would try Tomalin's; I'd never read anything of hers before but her name was familiar and she's a well-regarded biographer.

Frankly? I didn't care for the book a whole lot. I enjoyed learning more about Hardy, but for some reason it just felt like a real slog to read his life story. And he didn't really lead a dull life (he rose from extremely humble beginnings to become a very well-off author; he was married twice and carried a serious torch for another married woman; he wrote some of the angriest, and at the time, most scandalous literature available). This also was probably not the right biography for me because Tomalin really seemed more intent on proving Hardy's worth as a poet than as a novelist. That's fine, but it almost seemed like she just skipped over the writing and importance of his best-selling novels.

Periodically she also used turns of phrases that seemed a bit heavy-handed to me. There's this, in a caption for a photo of Hardy's first wife: "Her situation as a wife whose husband no longer needed her was pathetic, and, although she was mocked by many and disliked by som, there is something touching about her childlike face." And this: "Hardy and Emma's failure to have children is the saddest thing about their life together. He would have made a gentle and humorous father, and a child would have given Emma a focus for her attention and love, and filled up the long hours when he was absorbed in his writing. It would have relieved the tensions and resentments that built up between them..." (p. 172.)

Now that all may be true. But it seems rather a lot to assume. Particularly because the rest of the biography paints Hardy as a man truly driven to write and spending a lot of time doing so. Sometimes he did not seem over-kind to his first wife (or his second wife, really), so, although there is evidence that he was a kind uncle and friend to several relatives' and friends' children, it seems a bit of a leap to say what kind of father he would have made.

So yeah, not my favorite biography ever. But informative. Which is another thing I really do like about nonfiction: even if you're not in love with the author's writing or style, you usually still get something for your time in the way of knowledge.

*What I do remember is that I read it because Holden Caulfield referenced it in the novel Catcher in the Rye: "I like that Eustacia Vye." Yes, I was so in love with Holden that I went and read what he read. Ah, youth.

Reading experiences of 2014: Best and Worst

Well, it's April now, so it feels like it might be time for some posts wrapping up my reading experiences in 2014. As you can tell, productivity and I have simply not been in the same room since the arrival of the CRjrs.*

So I'm looking back over my clumsy reading spreadsheets for last year, and strangely enough, I think my strongest reading experiences, pro and con, were both centered on fiction books. Let's start with con, shall we?

Horrible fiction, thy title is Shotgun Lovesongs. Back in July of 2014 I had a few choice words for that novel. I still can't believe the good press it got**--the more I think of the author's portrayals of women, which were one-dimensional in the extreme (although his portraits of his male characters also needed at least one more dimension to be considered "multi-dimensional"), the more sickened I am that they're making it into a movie. Bah.

On the other hand, the positive reading experience...was so POSITIVE. Tune in tomorrow to see what book (or books) made my whole reading year worthwhile.

*But who cares? Lately CRjr has been hitting the local libraries--hard--for all their shark books (although books on the planets are running a strong second), and it's so awesome. Our living room looks like we are starting our own juvie nonfiction library.

**Incidentally, the positive New York Times Review accidentally reveals what I thought sucked about the whole novel: "The real star of “Shotgun Lovesongs” is Hank’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Beth, who provides the novel’s most substantial female voice. Both insider and outsider to Little Wing’s buddy culture, Beth offers our clearest glimpses into the hearts of the men around her." Yeah, she's the "real star" of the book, and what does she do for us? Ooh, she gives us glimpses into the hearts of the men around her. Thank God we have women characters around to use to get to know the male characters better. Bah!

Moms who drink and swear.

I am firmly on record as not minding swearing in my nonfiction (or fiction, really) books. However, I do think the swearing needs to be warranted. (For instance: I don't mind it when Matt Taibbi swears in his writing. I think most of the topics he covers require some amount of swearing, such as when he perfectly describes Alan Greenspan as a "one in a billion asshole.")

However, one book I leafed through recently contained just too much (unwarranted) swearing to be amusing. The title? Appropriately enough, Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. It's a collection of short essays, based on the author's blog of the same name,* and it just didn't do much for me. For instance, she includes what she calls "Conversations with Crotchfruit" (the "crotchfruit" being her children? I've never heard that word, personally):

"Zach: Why do you wear underwear that goes straight up your butt?

Me: Thongs? I wear these so underpants lines don't show through my pants, okay?

Zach: And it probably doesn't get stuck in all those dents all over your butt either. I get it.

Me: OH MY GOD! GET OUT!" (p. 49.)

I have several questions about this exchange. Mainly, because this is a woman who also references sometimes suffering from hemorrhoids, what on earth is she doing wearing thong underwear? Let's just say this was a woman to whom I couldn't relate. I read about fifty pages, wondered why I was wasting my time, and took it back to the library.

Here's a sample entry from the blog: "In July, I posted the first of what I hope will be many Fuck You Dinner recipes, a recipe for good goddamn homemade chicken tenders. I promised to share more, but I’ve spent the summer telling dinner to go fuck itself and letting my crothfruit’s shitty dinner requests roll and not cooking much." That's pretty much what the book is like.

Education books: Jonathan Kozol's "Death at an Early Age."

Lately I have been reading a lot of books on the subject of education, simply because CRjr is growing up and will eventually have to go to school. So I've been on the hunt for good books about school and education. My search was jumpstarted when I read, and found a lot to think about, in Amanda Ripley's terrific book The Smartest Kids in the World.

I didn't really know where to start looking or reading, so I decided to stick with some names I know. One of the big dogs in education writing is Jonathan Kozol, and I remembered reading and liking his book Savage Inequalities in college.* Because I'd already read that one, and I kind of wanted to see where Kozol got his start, I requested his first book, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, from the library. When it arrived it gave me a start. Do you know how old books that were first published in 1967 look? (Really old.)

Kozol tells you what the book is about in his first paragraph: "During the academic year 1964-1965, I found myself teaching in a segregated classroom of the Boston Public Schools. With no training in education and no experience as a teacher, I was sent into an overcrowded ghetto school on a substitute basis, given a year-long assignment, though on a day-to-day salary, to teach a Fourth Grade class within a compensatory program that had been designed for Negro children and that was intended to preserve the racial status quo in Boston by upgrading the segregated schools." (p. xi.)

I only got to about page 50 or so and I became too depressed to read further. (I find you can only read about children's spirits being crushed, and things like their hands getting whacked with rods, for so long, before wanting to give up and stop living.) It's an interesting book, and it's interesting to see where Kozol got his start. But if you're looking for a slightly less visceral but still compelling book on education, his books Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools or The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America might be a better place to start.

*I don't remember any of my college schoolwork, so the fact that I both remember reading and liking this title, considering education was not my major, is extraordinary.

And one book I outright hated: Shotgun Lovesongs.

Shotgun Lovesongs
by Nickolas Butler

Well, I'll say this for Nickolas Butler's novel Shotgun Lovesongs: it jolted me out of my "meh" week of reading. Mainly because I hated it so, so much.

If you are not familiar with this novel, be aware that critics are treating it like the second coming.* (And: really? Two reviews in the New York Times? They can't find any other new novels around to review?) Because of all its good press, and because it is by a Wisconsin author, I thought I would give it a try. I must admit that the description of it at Powell's is not one that would have made me pick it up otherwise: "In this love ballad to the Midwest, author Nickolas Butler gives us a glimpse inside small-town Wisconsin. The novel follows a circle of friends — a farmer, a rock star, a businessman, a mother, and a rodeo cowboy — as they each come to grips with the choices and events that have set the course in their lives."

If I'd read the phrase "love ballad to the Midwest" before I requested the book from the library, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But one day I was casting about for something to read, and as my sister had been asking me about this one too, I thought, well, I'd better read this. I only got about three chapters in and I was having a pretty strong reaction to it (much the way one "reacts" to milk when one is lactose intolerant, just to keep my metaphors suitably "love ballad to the Midwest"ish). So yes, I probably should have put it down. But then I read another review that said Butler had a real touch with writing his main female character, so I thought I'd stay with it through one of her chapters, and by the time I was done with that, I thought, well, hell, I just need closure now. And I got closure, in the form of a completely stupid "insight" about marriage, that I will not reveal to you, but which I will say was the lamest, most surface, most conventional "insight" about marriage ever, and one which, in the course of my twelve married years and my many more years of observing many other marriages, is almost completely untrue.

So what was there to dislike?

Well, perhaps I can best sum it up like this: this book is "Man Lore" to the extreme. Which should be no surprise, it's about a group of small-town Wisconsin friends in the two decades (give or take a few years) after their high school graduation. The story is told from several of the friends' points of view, as well as the point of view of one of their wives, and yes, each chapter is headed up with the initial of the person doing the talking ("B" for Beth, e.g.). Now this is your first problem. If I can't tell who's talking from your writing, without someone's name or initial at the head of the chapter, then you, Mr. or Ms. Lazy Writer, are not properly doing your job.

Forget the Midwest; most of the men telling the stories in this book talk like they're in an old Western:

"Ronny dried out in the hospital over the course of several months, often restrained in his bed, and we came to the hospital to hold his hand. His grip was ferocious, his veins seemed everywhere ready to jump right out through his sweaty flesh. His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth." (p. 7.)

Brother. There's a whole lot of passages like that. Here's salt-of-the-earth farmer Henry describing how he and his wife Beth get ready to go to their other friend Kip's wedding:

"Beth changed her ensemble five times that morning, switching out her shoes, her necklaces, her earrings. I understood. Had I owned more than one suit, I would have done the same thing. As it was I just sat in a battered old chair in our bedroom and watched her. She was beautiful to me. I could see that she had shaved her legs, supple and taut above the easy grip of her heels. She mussed her hair and pursed her lips at the mirror.

'What do you think?' she said finally, turning to me.

I stood and went to her, understanding right then that we were already growing older, that we would grow old together." (p. 30.)

As if that isn't painful enough, they actually share a little slow dance together after that.

Now, if I may? I actually am a Midwestern farmer's daughter. And let me paint you a little picture of how real dairy farmers get ready for a wedding:

"Mom rushed around with her dress unzipped, yelling at her daughter to call out to the barn and see where the hell Dad was. She did, and her brother told her their Dad was still out raking hay; rain was forecast the next day and acres of hay were going to get wet and ruined if they didn't get it put in the barn before that. The girl reported this news to her mother, who muttered, 'every damn time we have a wedding to go to...' before dashing off to finish making a cold cuts plate and salad for her brothers' supper. The girl sighed. She'd been counting on having Mom and Dad out for the afternoon, but now she knew they probably wouldn't leave in time for the ceremony and that they'd also probably have to leave the reception right after bolting some supper because Dad hadn't missed a milking, morning or night, in twenty-five years, and he certainly wasn't going to tonight for some stupid wedding dance."

Stick that in your "love ballad to the Midwest" pipe, Butler, and smoke it.

Anyway. I digress. Here's the takeaway: if you want to read a novel about a bunch of small-town Boy Men who are in love with a bunch of their Boy Men buddies, and one of their wives, who actually seems like a pretty unpleasant woman in her own right--she advises a friend who wants a baby (but whose husband is dragging his feet on the subject) to "make a mistake" with her birth control--then boy, do I have a novel for you.

If, on the other hand, you do want to read an authentic and beautifully written book about the Wisconsin experience, and one which features actual adult men who think about someone other than themselves at least every now and then, do yourself a favor and go get Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. You'll thank me, I promise you.

*This last review really hurt me, because it was by Jonathan Evison, whose novel All About Lulu I loved.

"So-so" books: Over Easy

Over Easy
by Mimi Pond

This year I've been trying to keep a spreadsheet of what I'm reading and why, but I'll admit it's a tough slog. I barely get the time to read, lately, so taking even a moment to type book information into Excel just isn't happening. As a result, as always, I'm still not sure how I find out about most of the books I read.

A case in point is Mimi Pond's graphic novel memoir Over Easy. It's about Pond's experiences working as a waitress in a 1970s California diner. I'm not sure why or how I heard about it, but as a former waitress myself, I will almost always get and read any book that I can find on the subject.

The book opens with Pond, an art student, finding herself in a diner, and deciding that she'd like to try working there. And so she does. And her stories (and drawings) about working with a wide variety of other wait- and kitchen staff are not completely uninteresting. But it never really gelled for me into any kind of narrative; Pond always seemed, perhaps true to her nature as an observer/artist, ever so slightly outside of the action.* I read this one barely a month ago and I remember hardly anything about it: therefore, "so-so."

If you're looking for a memoir on waitressing, you'd be much better served by Debra Ginsberg's wonderful Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress. Even Barbara Ehrenreich's overrated investigative work Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America contained a more lively section on working in a restaurant.

*Bonus points for Mimi Pond, though: an interview with her at The Bat Segundo Show is interesting (and you can see her artwork there, which, actually, I enjoyed).

John Green: 0 for 2 on reading recommendations, thus far.

I hardly ever seek out reading recommendations, particularly from people I do not know personally. Partly this is because I almost never have a problem finding things I want to read (I currently have 59 books checked out from the library, I'm on the hold waiting list for nearly that many more, and I've always got books that I own that I still need to read). Mainly I have a problem finding enough time to read books that I just seem to keep tripping over, and that doesn't even take into account that I know several great and interesting readers who often make suggestions to me in person.

So why I was watching John Green's entire YouTube video on the 18 books you probably haven't read but which he thinks you should, I couldn't really tell you. Yes, I do like John Green. Yes, of course I enjoy listening to anyone and everyone talk about books. But how I found that video I don't know, unless it's because I somehow heard that he also recommended Tony Hawks's travel books Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, which are two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books.

On John's recommendation (librarians: please see John Green for how to make books sound interesting; he can do so in very little time), I checked out Joshua Braff's* novel The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green and Alice Domurat Dreger's One of Us : Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. I am actually very sorry to report that neither one of these books really worked out for me.

There really wasn't anything wrong with Braff's novel; it seems to be a fairly standard male coming-of-age story, featuring an extremely complex relationship between Jacob and his father, but I just wasn't in the mood. (Or, I should say, I kind of just kept picking it up and reading it when I couldn't decide what else to read, but I never really WANTED to go back to reading it).

The One of Us book was a bit of a different story. It's actually quite interesting, and you wouldn't believe that a book about conjoined twins would have so much to say on so many different topics, among them what we consider to be "normal" where our bodies are concerned, and how much doctors and medical professionals are involved with helping us judge and "fix" our appearances. I thought it was a bit dry, at first, but I spent a bit more time with it today and it's actually quite the fascinating little book. Again, I'm just not quite in the right mood for it. It reminded me of Amy Bloom's superlative Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, which I would heartily recommend to anyone.

On the whole, though, I wouldn't say these were bad suggestions. And I'm going to give Green another try; he mentioned several other titles in his "18 books" video that sounded interesting. Happy weekend, all.

*Yes, he's the brother of actor Zach Braff.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

I felt vaguely dirty upon finishing the novel The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

I got it from the library because I saw it getting a lot of word-of-mouth attention, and it popped up on the New York Times bestseller list, and sometimes I like to keep an eye on the current tastes in fiction. And then I started it because I heard the first chapter read on my public radio station's "Chapter a Day" program, and I thought, hey, that book's here, I should just read it. And then I kept reading it because it's about a bookseller and a bookstore.

But did I enjoy it? Well, not really. As a matter of fact, I think it was totally formulaic and manipulative, and I further think that Algonquin Books (a publisher of whom I have thought very highly in the past) should be just the tiniest bit ashamed of themselves for publishing such schlock.

The story is: small-town independent bookseller A.J. Fikry is foundering. His wife has died, his business isn't doing well, he's drinking himself to death, and his retirement plan, a first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book, has just been stolen. But then: a baby is left in his store, abandoned by a mother who wants her "to grow up in a place with books." He falls in love with another book professional. Life is good, and then...well, I don't like to give spoilers. But what follows next is a tear-jerking device of the highest order. So yeah, yeah, reading is great and love is everything. I don't argue with the message. But I do not enjoy novels that purport to be gentle little things delivering that message with a sentimental sledgehammer. Consider the folksiness of an early passage:

"That Christmas and for weeks after, Alice buzzes with the news that A.J. Fikry the widower/bookstore owner has taken in an abandoned child. It is the most gossip-worthy story Alice has had in some time--probably since Tamerlane was stolen--and what is of particular interest is the character of A. J. Fikry. The town had always considered him to be snobbish and cold, and it seems inconceivable that such a man would adopt a baby just because it was abandoned in his store." (p. 69.)

I did not like this book in pretty much exactly the same way I did not like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And do you hear much about that book anymore? Nah, pretty instantly forgettable. And I'm guessing this one will be the same way.

Other reviews: Kirkus Reviews, Washington Post

A disappointing YA read.

The Giver
by Lois Lowry

When I worked in the public library, I always felt I should do a better job of reading and suggesting kids' and YA fiction titles. Every time I shelved Lois Lowry's novel The Giver, for instance, I thought, I should read this. The book was a Newbery award winner (in addition to winning many other awards)*, it got checked out a lot, and it was even a bit controversial.

But yet? I just never got around to reading it.

So when I came across the trailer for the forthcoming movie, I thought, this is it. It is time to start reading some kids' and YA "classics" so I know what CRjr and CR3 will be reading soon. So I checked it out.

And I was super disappointed.

Yeah, the story was compelling enough. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic society in which the community has found ways to keep from feeling much of anything, valuing "Sameness" and tranquility over the messier human emotions of anger, passion, and love (to name just a few). But of course, that tranquil surface belies not-so-tranquil things happening underneath, as Jonas starts to learn after he is chosen to be the community's next "Receiver," or repository of the community's memories from before the "Sameness."

But I was really, really disappointed by the ending. And there were several small plot points along the way that just seemed like lazy writing to me.** And yes, I was not surprised by most of the unpleasant secrets of the society, because I'm an old cynical lady (not an impressionable young YA) and because I've read a lot of dystopian fiction and none of it differs all that much. But still. I was underwhelmed.

*Don't read the summary of this book at its Wikipedia page if you don't want to read any spoilers.

**I'll try not to give away too much, but at one point the main character hides himself from heat-seeking radar (or whatever) by recalling his memory of "cold." Um, I don't think that's how that works. And that just seemed lazy to me in a work that is considered "science" fiction.

Thank God; I was worried I was starting to like everything.

It has been a very good year for me, fiction- and nonfiction-wise. By which I mean I have been enjoying reading almost everything I have brought home (although some titles do get home and back from the library without me having read a page of them; you just run out of time). I was starting to worry, in fact, that I was becoming some sort of easygoing, non-judgmental, easy-to-please reader.

And then I started the book Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm.

I only got about 45 pages into this one, so no, I probably didn't give it a real fair test, but I am done reading it. It's a woman's memoir of going through a divorce, amicably share custody of her three sons with her ex, and trying to keep a farm running through all of it. To be even more fair, I should point out that I really had no reason to expect this book to appeal to me: I only got OFF a farm when I was eighteen, and I never, ever want to go back, and I don't even want to think about divorce and trying to raise children separately (it's exhausting to try and do it together, after all).

Why did I check this book out? Well, when I read Emily Matchar's Homeward Bound, she listed a bunch of "back to the farm"/homemaker memoirs, and this was among them; I don't read a lot of these types of memoirs, but for some reason I thought I would give one a try. It quickly became apparent, however, that this was not going to be a memoir for me:

"They're all mine now, and this is how I will raise my boys: on cheerful summer days and well water and BB guns and horseback riding and dirt. Because I'm claiming our whole country life, the one I've been dreaming of and planning out and working for since I was a little girl.

Last night the full moon hung low and close, like a glistening teardrop on the earth's dark eye, threatening to spill. It didn't, though, and neither did I. A month is a bill cycle, a mortgage cycle, and may become a child-support cycle, but a month is also a moon phase and a growing phase. Our financial lives, our emotional lives, and our cosmic lives are irrevocably intertwined." (p. 13.)

Yeah, cosmic lives. When I start seeing phrases like "cosmic lives," I'm pretty much done with a book.

Intriguing idea, but I need more "pop" in my science.

I heard about Mario Livio's book Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe on some sort of NPR interview that he did, and, based simply on the title, thought it might make for an interesting read.

It probably is, but it is not for me. I only got to page 13, and I decided that, although a real scientist would probably consider this title "popular science," it is still a little hardcore for me. Livio's basic idea is that great scientific discoveries don't pop out of nowhere; they are, in fact, made when scientists make lots of little mistakes and even a few huge ones while they're trying to figure stuff out.

The chapters cover scientists including Charles Darwin*, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, and Albert Einstein, among others, and it certainly seems like a well-written book that the right reader might really enjoy.** But for me, right now, it's just a little dry: "The blunders described in this book have all, in one way or another, acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs--hence, their description as 'brilliant blunders.' They served as the agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps." (pp. 10-11.)

*It didn't help that the book opens with Darwin and evolution, and I find evolution just about the most dull subject there is. If I even just hear the word "evolution," I start immediately yawning and my eyes get heavy.

**And I'm just totally scattered these days. If I had more time and my old powers of concentration I might have enjoyed this one a lot more too.

Another snore-worthy list from the ALA.

I have never been a huge fan of the American Library Association.

Each year this opinion is solidified when I check out their lists of Notable Books. It's always one of the least interesting lists I come across, and this year is no exception. Here are the books they suggest:


  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Kate Atkinson - Life After Life
  • Edwidge Danticat – Claire of the Sea Light
  • Juliann Garey – Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See
  • Paul Harding – Enon
  • Kristopher Jansma – The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
  • Herman Koch – The Dinner
  • Anthony Marra – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
  • Claire Messud – The Woman Upstairs
  • Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

No kidding, I find this fiction list so boring my eyes literally started wandering anywhere else across the room by the time I got to Paul Harding.


  • Scott Anderson – Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
  • Nicholas A. Basbanes – On Paper
  • Cris Beam – To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care
  • Daniel James Brown – The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
  • Ian Buruma – Year Zero: A History of 1945
  • Sheri Fink – Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
  • Margalit Fox – The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
  • Simon Garfield – On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
  • Robert Hilburn – Johnny Cash: the Life
  • Brendan I. Koerner – The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
  • Virginia Morell – Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
  • Eric Schlosser – Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
  • Rebecca Solnit – The Faraway Nearby

Wow, I'm even worse with this list than I was with the New York Times Notable list. The only one I've read here is Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial.

Has anyone read any of these books? Should I read any more of them, or can I just accept that I will never want to read much of anything that the ALA wants me to?